Last year was Neumann’s rookie season in the ECAC West. After playing an independent Division III schedule for three seasons, the Knights stepped into league play and received an eye-opening reception, getting thoroughly thumped in most of their contests.
“It couldn’t get any worse than last year,” said Neumann coach Nick Russo. “I say that, and now they are going to be on the road for 16 games. It’s going to get a little bit worse travel-wise but it really can’t get worse otherwise.
“Every morning I wake up, I still hear horns going off in Utica and bells being rung at RIT. ’24-0,’ I write in shampoo in the shower every morning. That was about as bad a season as you can go through. To survive that and stay together I feel the sense of unity this year. I feel the confidence that it’s going to get better.”
Even with the repeated drubbings on the scoreboard, it was interesting to watch Neumann’s games towards the end of last season. The team could have gone one of two ways: self-destruction, imploding under the sheer frustration of playing hopeless contests, or coming together as a team, supporting each other through the low times, knowing that hockey is only a game.
Russo kept the mood in the locker room light, stressing the importance of the team as family, and the players responded. Having weathered the storm last year, that unity should pay dividends.
Catching Up With the Joneses
However, Neumann still has a great void to cross before they become competitive in the league. The first step towards that goal is recruiting.
“I knew that we had to ‘catch up with the Joneses,’ not just ‘keep up with the Joneses,'” said Russo. “I did a lot of travel this year for recruiting. One of the things I tried to do was to look at places [where other ECAC West teams] were recruiting, and I wanted to hit some places where they weren’t. So I spent a lot of energy in Alberta, around Calgary, and Quebec.”
This past recruiting cycle was the first real opportunity that Russo could use the lure of playing in the ECAC West in his pitch to the potential recruits. That allowed him to get his foot in the door in places where before they wouldn’t talk to him.
“It made a huge difference in the sense that, it is frustrating as a coach when kids don’t look you in the eye,” said Russo. “When you mention teams like RIT, Elmira, and Manhattanville, they’re on you. If you want to beat RIT and Elmira, you have to recruit kids that could play there.
“It was a huge recruiting tool for me being in the ECAC West. Kids want to play those teams. Kids want to play at that level. … Fortunately, the school has given me the opportunity to do that. The school’s eyes were opened last year that if we want to make hockey work here, we have to let this guy recruit. Just being in the ECAC West made Neumann College realize that hockey is different out there.”
With so many things having gone wrong last season, where was Russo to concentrate in improving his team? Play in the defensive zone was the answer.
— Head coach Nick Russo, on Neumann’s struggles last year
“As much as scoring was a problem last year, I think our bigger problem last year was keeping the puck out of our own net,” said Russo. “I really tried to recruit some forwards that can play two ways. The kids from Canada are two-way players, really tough and gritty defensively.”
Russo recruited three forwards from Alberta, all with good offensive numbers and strong in their defensive zone. Jon Hancock (Cochrane, Alberta) played for the Cochrane Generals (HJHL) and tallied 41 points in 36 games. He also adds toughness, as Hancock amassed 193 penalty minutes in those same 36 games.
Clark Minken hails from Calgary, Alberta, and tallied 24 points in 25 games for the Salt Lake Maple Leafs (WSHL) last season.
Matt Mayer also comes to Neumann from Calgary, where he played for the Junior Flames (AMHL), scoring 24 points in 35 games.
Defensive forwards won’t do much good unless Neumann also improves its defense, and it looks like Russo made some progress there as well. Joe Viscuse, a two-way player who can step into either a defenseman or forward role, is touted as the “best player in the Philly area.” Viscuse played last season for the Philadelphia Jr. Flyers, a team that Russo has never been able to recruit from before, but now can thanks to the ECAC West.
Tim Tabb (Boston Harbor Wolves, EJHL), Joe Ciocco (Lowell Jr. A Lock Monsters), and Joshua Riley (Catholic Memorial) also join Viscuse on defense.
The new recruiting ability also helped Neumann with walk-on recruits this season. Paul Reuter (Waldorf, Maryland) played for Canterbury Prep the last two seasons, and decided he wanted to go to college somewhere closer to home. So he walked on at Neumann and has been a pleasant development.
“I had heard a lot of things from the guys, and he looked like a pretty tough kid,” said Russo. “He was a surprise.”
Neumann starts with a tough schedule each year, just competing against teams within the ECAC West. Add in games against geographic rival Lebanon Valley and the strength of schedule goes up even more. This season will be particularly tough, with 16 road games.
“I don’t think it can get any tougher,” said Russo. “I did 16 home games last year because I didn’t want it to get any tougher. I’m looking down the road that hopefully it will flip-flop next year when these kids have a little more experience.”
Russo is understandably ambivalent about the new ECAC West travel partner system.
“I’m OK with it,” said Russo. “I’m so far away from everybody that it doesn’t really matter who my travel partner is.”
It is a long process to build a new program into a competitive team in one of the toughest leagues in the nation. Neumann has the additional baggage of overcoming several years of negative momentum. But Russo and the Knights are making strides, and now have additional resources from Neumann to continue that process for years to come.